3 BUSTER KEATON SHORTS
March 29, 2020
The Playhouse (1921)
The sight of nine Buster Keaton’s dancing in sync with each other in this two-reeler may seem like an impressive technical feat for 1921—and it did involve exposing the same roll of film nine times, with the cameraman manually cranking at the same speed each time. But in fact, Georges Méliès pulled off similarly impressive shots more than a decade earlier. What makes The Playhouse special is how thoroughly realized the theater of Busters is—featuring actors, the orchestra pit and the audience—and how it riffs on notions of identity and ego. (“This Keaton fellow seems to be the whole show.”) After Buster wakes from his dream, only to find himself back on set in a clever reveal, the gags continue to draw on the notion of doubles and multiple roles. If that weren’t enough, you get to see Keaton pretend to be a monkey.
Hard Luck (1922)
Sometimes failing at life includes failing at ending your life. That’s the problem Buster Keaton’s character faces in Hard Luck. He hangs himself from weak trees, jumps in front of cars that turn out not to be cars and just plain can’t find a way to put himself out of his misery. Note that the wonderfully absurd finale isn’t included in the Kino blu-ray of Keaton’s shorts, but is on the UK Masters of Cinema release and, oddly, Kino’s own Keaton Plus DVD.
The Boat (1921)
There’s a gag in The Boat in which the hero launches his boat, and it immediately sinks. It seems simple enough, but Buster Keaton actually went through several attempts and engineering adjustments before getting the shot right. If it had sank any other way, it wouldn’t have been funny, he said. That level of commitment to a few seconds of a movie embodies the ethos of the best silent comedy: It may seem on the surface to be pure silliness, but a great deal of thought, strategy and effort went into maximizing the audience’s laughter. The Boat is characteristically loaded with both great humor and great physical comedy—including Keaton trying to stay oriented as his boat is battered around in circles.
The Navigator (1924)
The Navigator mines an ocean liner for every gag imaginable. Keaton plays a clueless rich young man who finds himself stranded on a giant, adrift ship with the clueless rich young woman who rejected him serving as his only company. These two spoiled upper-class twerps don’t know how to open canned food, let alone operate a ship, and have to improvise in hilarious ways to get things under control. The scene where the two characters each suspect someone else is on the boat, but can’t find anyone else, plays out in classic Keaton fashion: with perfectly timed wide shots that make it more believable that the two keep missing each other. The best moment may be a spooky night when the characters let the creepiness of the boat get the best of them.